By Talya Stehley, Staff Writer
If you follow the indie gaming world, you might have already heard about indie studio ZA/UM’s Disco Elysium, which was released for PC last October to near-universal critical acclaim. The game’s premise is simple and well-worn: you play as Harry, a detective, and you need to solve a murder. Also, you have amnesia. None of that very general premise is particularly unique, but what is unique is the degree of damage Harry caused himself and his surroundings before losing his memory. He trashed his hotel room (depending on how you allocated your stats, it’s possible to die trying to get your necktie down from the ceiling fan). Everyone who’s met you treats you with a mixture of fear, annoyance, disgust, and pity. And you haven’t dealt with the body yet. It’s still just hanging where it was. I spent a lot of my playthrough just apologizing for the things I did (as did 13.8% of players who, like me, got the “Literally the Sorriest Cop on Earth” achievement on game distribution platform Steam, though this doesn’t account for people who bought the game through other services).
Lucky for you, you’re not totally alone in a world you don’t understand. Accompanying you on your investigation is Lt. Kim Kitsuragi, an officer from another precinct. Kitsuragi didn’t know you before the events of the game. Despite, or perhaps because of this, he displays a shocking degree of patience and kindness, while reigning in your worst impulses. Or at least he did in my playthrough. It’s totally possible to alienate Kim by being a massive racist and openly doing drugs, but why would you want to? Referring back to the Steam achievements, as of the time of publication, 33% of players have the “Goodest of the Good Cops” achievement, for earning Kim’s trust, while only 1% have “Baddest of the Bad Cops” for having a sufficiently low relationship with Kim. (It’s possible to earn either by the end of the first in-game day, so it’s not an issue of mechanical difficulty.) Kim is incredibly well-written as a character and is what makes Disco Elysium really work for me. While he’s the straight-laced, by-the-book cop to your hot mess cop, he has his own quirks and idiosyncrasies, which reveal themselves as you get to know him better. That is, if you choose to get to know him better. Disco Elysium gives you a high degree of choice in how you interact with the world around you. From the start, you can choose how to allocate your skills, which will change which tasks are easier and harder, determined by a Dungeons and Dragons-esque “dice rolls with skill modifiers system.” The game has few premade character builds, but you’re free to make your own, though you may want to hold off until you’ve played a little bit, to get a sense of what some of the more oddly named skills, like Savoir Faire and Inland Empire, actually do.
Like most RPGs, you earn experience points for completing tasks, which you can use to level up your skills. This changes how you view the world, but how does the world view you? Most of the game consists of conversations, and the choices you make in dialogue will steer you towards different identities. On one axis, you have what the game calls “Copotypes.” This includes the aforementioned “Sorry Cop” as well as things like “Boring Cop,” “Superstar Cop,” and “Cop of the Apocalypse.” A more important aspect of the identity you build throughout the game is your political alignment. For example, you find out pretty early on that the murder you’re trying to solve is intertwined with an ongoing dispute between the nearby harbor’s owners and the dockworkers union. If you espouse socialist views, the head of the union will trust you more easily. Becoming a fascist, on the other hand, makes different characters in the world who hold similar views more likely to cooperate with you, but tanks your relationship with Kim, who is a different race than you. I have mixed feelings about the game’s political system, though that effect was probably intentional. In Disco Elysium, there are no good political choices. Martinaise, the fictitious town where the game takes place, is still partially in ruins from a failed communist revolution decades prior, which makes advocating Communism seem somewhat foolish, especially when the main example of a left-wing organization, the dockworkers union, is fantastically corrupt.
I shouldn’t have to tell you that Fascism is bad, but within the context of the game, the ideology is made even more nonsensical by the fact that the setting’s equivalent of white people aren’t native to Martinaise, and the game’s most sympathetic and upstanding character, Kim Kitsuragi, is not white. While laissez-faire, free-market capitalism, another ideology you can choose, might create new jobs, how much of the wealth it would generate would stay within the region? And besides, it’s not like the corporate side of the union dispute has clean hands either. The remaining political option, none of the above, aligns you with what the setting calls “Moralists,” who support the status quo and the foreign government that controls Martinaise from afar. That status quo is not good, and that government cares very little about Martinaise. Something needs to change, but it’s not clear what. Though Disco Elysium deals with real world political ideas, it’s not set in our world. It’s hard to categorize the worldbuilding in Disco Elysium. While the game has some supernatural elements, the supernatural does not affect most people’s daily lives, making it not really any flavor of fantasy I can think of. Technology in the setting is roughly where it was for us in the 70s or 80s, but it clearly followed a different trajectory. The closest analogue that comes to mind for me, in terms of word building, is Neal Stephenson’s novel Anathem, though the two are tonally very different. By setting its action in a totally constructed world, Disco Elysium, makes it feel safer to experiment with political ideology than it would be in a real place with real-world baggage attached. This makes it easier to get immersed in the game’s world and its ideas. On a first playthrough, you know as little about the setting and the situation as the amnesiac protagonist. I’m a fan.
Much as you can shape Harry’s identity and the way he interacts with the world, his past is set in stone. You can spend the whole game insisting that people call you Tequila Sunset, but it won’t change the fact that your legal name is something else. No matter how you choose to play him, Harry is a man who has hit rock bottom. The fun is in deciding whether he tries to make amends or keep digging. As in real life, in Disco Elysium, the past is set in stone. You’re forced to move forward from your embarrassing mistakes, mistakes you can’t make disappear. But the future, at least as far as your personal conduct is concerned, is still open.
And now for the big question — is Disco Elysium overrated? Yeah, at least a little bit. With some of the praise that’s been heaped on it, it would be impossible not to be. That said, I can’t stop thinking about it, and I started a second playthrough immediately after finishing it for the first time. The degree of player choice is fun, but it also means that you can make it to the end of the story having missed big parts of the game. I found the ending anticlimactic, mainly because a big part of it connected to a subplot I had mostly ignored. Part of the reason I started my second playthrough was because I kept hearing about great scenes that never happened in my playthrough. It turned out I hadn’t fully explored part of the map, and missed out on a different major subplot. Still, there were plenty of great moments, and even beautiful moments leading up to the end. My first playthrough took me about twenty hours, which is short for the genre, but I thoroughly enjoyed that time. The game is extremely text-heavy, which some people may find off-putting, but others may like. It also deals with mature and sometimes troubling subject matter. In addition to violence and the aforementioned political material, the game contains alcohol and drug use (part of Harry’s past, optionally part of his present), as well as discussions of sexual assault. With those caveats aside, I highly recommend Disco Elysium.